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Black Mass

The much anticipated crime picture, Black Mass, has been a mild hit for the critics and a tepid winner at the box office. As Matt Neal of The Standard put it: “…given Depp’s performance, and the high-caliber cast around him, it’s disappointing Black Mass isn’t better.” Talk about damned by faint praise. And this review is rated “Fresh” by rottentomatoes.com. Just think what the “rotten” reviews say…

Black Mass is exactly that: a good, solid criminal drama but nothing to write home about. The odd thing is that when one breaks it down, there are many pluses and few minuses. So what makes the film so disappointing?

I’ll give my answer in a moment, but first let’s catalogue some of the positive elements of the film. The acting is first rate. Johnny Depp, finally playing a “real character” and not someone wearing a silly hat or who has scissors for hands, portrays the famous gangster Whitey Bulger, ruler of South Boston for decades because of a deal he made with FBI agent John Connolly to trap the Sicilian mafia intruding on his turf. The deal, however, gave Bulger free reign to control all the illegal traffic in his territory without consequence. Bulger was supposed to abstain from killing anyone and from selling drugs. Good luck.

The superb Australian actor Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, The Gift), playing Connolly is perhaps not as good as he is in other films. The part is difficult, and the balance he tries to give to Connolly of braggadocio, yet sympathy plays out well enough. One could blame the writing for the scenes Edgerton overplays, but in any case, the performance does not sink the film and adds much to it. The rest of the supporting cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon and on and on, are well-cast and contribute to the film in just the way they should. No scene-stealers here. A good example is Julianna Nicholson, who, in a chilling scene with Depp, could have gotten all breathless and sexual, but instead plays the fear she has of him perfectly and allows the sexual undertone to be where it should be in the darker shadows of the scene’s themes.

All the production elements are expertly handled. The streets of South Boston from that era are presented in just the grimy, sloppy way they were. I lived in Boston at the time Whitey Bulger was loose and in charge, and the set design and location and costuming design as well as the lighting during both day and night made the film’s scenes indistinguishable from how that environment really was.

It is hard to say why the movie fails, but I think one must lay the fault at the feet of the script and the director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace). Mass just does not have an arc like it should. One thing happens after another with no apparent fear or tension developed toward an overall purpose or end point. The movie is violent and there are a few mild points of concern for the viewer, but nothing ever happens that is unexpected or strongly evocative of the fear one should have watching a movie like this. Black Mass feels more like a history lesson than a crime picture. The viewer is comfortably distanced from the murder and the mayhem, and that should never be. A gangster movie should make one afraid that “this could happen in my town”. Black Mass only makes you feel that this could happen in Boston.

If you want a movie about the crime scene of Boston that scares you, rent Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award winner The Departed. While it’s not a perfect picture either, one only need compare it to Black Mass to see how good it is.

Drew Trotter

November 2, 2015

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